Lawyers are some of the most intelligent people in this country. But from a business management perspective, I’d put them in the bottom 50%.  That’s because lawyers don’t like to plan, they don’t like to ask how they are doing, and they don’t like change. But mostly, it’s because when they do get good advice, they often don’t follow through with it.    

To be a lawyer you need memory, analysis, logic, strategy, quick thinking, and advocacy to name just a few of the necessary skills.  With all of those capabilities, you’d think they would be great business people. Unfortunately, lawyers also tend to be extremely risk-averse, resistant to change, untrusting, and sometimes, with an ego that makes them believe they know better than the experts they hire.

“My last firm cherry-picked me from my former firm because they wanted to make some major changes to their marketing program and they liked what I’d been able to accomplish previously.  But after I arrived, I learned pretty quickly that they didn’t want to hear what I had to say.  I wasted nine months trying to move them along and then I left for greener pastures”.   (Midwest US Law firm Marketer).

“Many years ago, I’d spent time convincing a lawyer we should do an ad campaign with a magazine focused on his primary client base.  One day he finally agreed, and showed me a series of ads his niece, a first year marketing student from BCIT, had designed for the campaign.  Flabbergasted, realizing he was totally committed to this, I said sure.  I tracked billings in that area before the campaign, and through the next 6 weeks and $10k of ads.  Then I took the data back to the lawyer.  There was no change.  He looked at me and said, OK, let’s try it your way now.  We had a very successful six-month campaign, but I never forgot that he couldn’t stop himself from trusted a marketing student over the marketing expert the firm had hired.”  (Vancouver Marketer) 

Law firms used to be run entirely by lawyers.  The first outside experts they brought in were accountants.  Next were HR professionals for staff acquisition and management (although lawyer hires and maintenance were still handled by lawyers, for the most part).  The first professional marketers were brought into Canadian law firms about the time (or just after) IT experts were brought onto staff.   The initial role of marketers was to protect the logo.  We ensured it was properly replicated on trinkets and trash and in the early firm brochures.  Later when advertising was allowed, we helped to create countless tombstone ads – refencing the firm name and address and maybe areas of law but that’s about it.

Over time, marketing became far more sophisticated. When I was with BLG we had a marketing team of over 30 people including one who just specialized in directory submissions(!) Smaller firms also began to understand the value of hiring a marketing professional – either as a full-time staff member or by engaging a consultant to provide services as-needed.

As I lived through this evolution, I can tell you that as the marketing role became more sophisticated, lawyers became more resistant to listening.

“I was hired for my marketing expertise and to build programs for them that would really take them forward.  But I couldn’t even get a regular meeting with my Managing Partner so I had no access to authority.  It crippled my ability to do my job.  I had some great ideas and wrote some great plans, but they went nowhere.  So, when I was presented with another good opportunity, I left”.   (Vancouver Marketer)

“I would meet with my Managing Partner – the few times he hadn’t cancelled our meeting – and try to sell him on a strategic marketing project.  But he just wanted to talk about low-level tactics that had no connection to any strategy.  He was really enthusiastic about them and desperately wanted me to buy into them.  So after a while, I just started agreeing with him because it wasn’t worth the fight”.  (Vancouver Marketer)

Part of the blame may go to the Marketers.  Lawyers are afraid of what they can’t understand.  Marketers need to become extraordinary communicators in order to explain the connection between marketing research, marketing concepts, and proposed marketing projects.  But to be fair, any explanations must combat an often-inflexible personal belief system by lawyers about what good marketing looks like, and what they believe clients really think.

Here’s a fact: lawyers process information in a way that is only shared by 20% of the population.  So, if a lawyer loves a law firm ad – throw it out.  It won’t work for 80% of your target market.  And as one of the first law firm marketers to set up regular client surveys, I can tell you that in my experience, most lawyers have very little understanding of how their clients truly feel about them and the firm.  Clients will often play nice with the lawyer to maintain the relationship because they appreciate and respect their lawyer. But there are usually small (or even big) issues in the relationship that they just can’t say to the lawyer, but will say in a survey.

Lawyers are also more likely to believe each others’ personal belief about a marketplace over empirical data collected and analyzed by the marketer.  I’ve also seen lawyers reject analysis of internal data (like billings growth or decline by practice area).  They see the stats, but they prefer to trust their gut feelings.

Lawyers seek out expertise when there is an issue they can’t seem to fix on their own.  That makes sense.  I’ve been brought in on numerous occasions to write a strategic plan for a firm that knows it needs a major shift, and wants to ensure they shift logically.  Smart.  But I would say that over 50% of the firms who request and receive a strategic plan (which can be quite a process), never follow through with it, or at least never fully implement on it.

It seems wasteful to go through the time and trouble of a planning process (or hiring a marketing expert, or doing a client survey) only to ignore the document, not listen to that expert, and not follow through on survey findings.  But it’s worse than that.  The lack of follow through can be a grave strategic error:

  • Don’t ask a client for their opinion if you aren’t committed to a. reporting back to them on findings and b. making changes that address the issues they raised. That’s worse than not asking the questions in the first place.  They’ll feel you wasted their time, and didn’t value their answers.
  • Don’t hire a marketing expert and then not let them do their job. If they are good, they’ll leave you to go somewhere they can be appreciated.  And marketers talk, so your firm will develop a reputation that will limit the number of qualified marketers who will consider your firm in future.
  • Don’t go through a detailed planning process within your firm and then let it go nowhere. Your junior partners and all associates (and staff) are watching you closely. Many of them don’t believe a firm is capable of change.  A lack of action just confirms that belief.  This, in turn, might affect their loyalty in the longer run.

Why would a firm go through the effort and expense and developing a strategic plan/hiring a marketing expert/starting a new marketing plan and then not implement?

  1. They want perfect conditions in order to start the process. “We want to wait until the new fiscal year begins”.  “We want to wait until these lawyers retire”.  “We want to wait until we’ve squeezed more work out of this practice area”.  The longer you wait to start implementation, the less committed you’ll be to doing so.  That doesn’t mean your plan was wrong.  It means that human beings are flawed.  Make immediate implementation a component of the agreement to get a plan created in the first place.
  2. They don’t know how to implement the ideas in the plan. A number of the clients I’ve worked with have pointed to past strategic planning processes, some of which have been quite good. When I ask why they weren’t implemented, the response might be that they didn’t know how to start. That’s why I usually provide the first-year business goals and offer to work on a first year operational and marketing plan – to provide a blueprint for how to implement the strategic plan in the first year and to demonstrate how the firm can ensure that each year, plans are made to move the firm one year closer to the strategic planning goals.
  3. They are worried about one or two individuals buying into the plan. In these instances, the firm knew in advance that there would be one or two difficult partners in the process.  That’s normal, and human.  But firms should never give one or two partners the power to derail strategy that everyone else agrees to.  Those partners know they have that power, and obviously have a desire to wield it.  They will never give it back.  Go around them.
  4. The plan requires a behaviour change they are not willing to police.  Remember the definition of insanity.  The only way change is going to come is if change is allowed to happen.  As lawyers hate change, it might have to be mandated, and it probably needs to be accompanied by an accountability process.
  5. The plan requires a shift (or multiple shifts) in the firm they are afraid to begin. While most plans call for very subtle shifts, over extended periods of time, there are some instances where a faster shift is warranted.  For example, most firms reliant of PI files are requiring a relatively rapid shift into other areas of law.  Again, partnerships should agree – prior to a strategic planning process – to implement on the plan.  The plan approval process should include timelines, and an ongoing accountability process.
  6. They didn’t realize they would need on ongoing commitment. If you have a high-level marketer at your firm, the Managing Partner should meet with them at least once every two weeks.  The COO should meet with them more regularly.  (And if you continually reschedule those meetings, the Marketer should leave).  If you have a strategic plan in place, there should be an accountability process that takes place at least quarterly to ensure the plan is being implemented on.   The value is not in hiring someone or writing a plan.  It’s about how those assets are utilized over time and this requires ongoing commitment.

It’s hard to be a law firm partner, expected to be an expert in your areas of law, in client service, in business development and in running a law firm.  Luckily, you can surround yourself with expert assistance – be it staff or consultants.  But if you do, it makes no sense to waste that resource and can actually send out some negative messages about your firm to your lawyers, your clients, and the law firm administrative world.   Making the decision to be strategic is a great start; but not following-through can really hurt you.

Heather Gray-Grant is a business strategist, marketing expert and executive coach for law firms, lawyers and administrators.  She also helps to buy and sell law firms.  She can be reached at